The hardest sort of student short stories to discuss in class workshops are those that are adept from sentence to sentence but hopelessly fouled either by plot contrivance (say, a character's convenient case of amnesia) or by the author's desire to editorialize about some issue or idea (a colleague of mine calls these exemplum-style stories "debate-club topics made flesh"). For years, I believed that, despite all the pretty sentences, such stories are too ill-conceived to be salvageable. I'd try to be diplomatic, which is hard when a voice in your head keeps telling you that if you told the truth you'd say merely, "Junk this and write something else."
Finally, after nearly 20 years, I bumbled upon something really useful to say.
"What would really happen in a situation like this?" I heard myself blurt one day in class. "Not what happens here. Not any hackneyed plot contrivance that you feel like you've seen a zillion times on TV. What would really happen to recognizable human beings thrown into such an unlikely bind?"
Such material doesn't have to be ceded entirely to editorial writers or to genre fiction's game board-piece character development. Be vigilant in stamping out the mildest cliché. Dig more deeply into the characters. Do research. Learn stuff, then don't strain to show the reader what you know. Deliver the news. Tell a convincing story.
A shorthand way to explain this: read the exquisitely designed novels of Margot Livesey.
Homework concerns conflicts within a stepfamily (without ever seeming akin to the Brady Bunch). Criminals concerns a baby abandoned in a bus station and the consequent complications of custody and blackmail (without ever sinking remotely close to the antic-crime-novel-featuring-dumb-bad-guys genre). The Missing World, just published, concerns a woman who is hit by a car and loses all memory of the last three years of her life (without ever seeming like a straight-to-video movie starring Brat Pack or SNL alumni).
"I try to write novels that make plot the muscle of the apparatus," says the Scottish-born Livesey from her home in Boston. "That doesn't mean, at all, that character development is secondary, just thatin the way all those great 19th-century novels doI want to use a strong plot to get to a different, deeper level."
With each book, she says, she asked herself this question: "What would someone like myself, or the sort of person I know, do in quite extreme circumstances?"
The result has been books that get compared to those both of mystery writers (including P. D. James and the inestimable Patricia Highsmith) and of the award-magnet literary fiction writers like Ian McEwan, Iris Murdoch, and Penelope Fitzgerald.
When Criminals came out, and people started calling it a "thriller," even occasionally shelving it among crime novels, Livesey says she was "shocked," but ultimately pleased. "The word 'thriller,'" she speculates, "has become shorthand for 'an entertaining, readable book.'"
When people (or at least reviewers for The New York Times and The New Yorker) called her new novel The Missing World a comedy, Livesey was shocked again.
"Perhaps more taken aback than shocked," she says. "'Comedy' is not the first word that I would use to describe the book. But I do mean it to be witty, and I'm pleased people are responding to that. There are certainly parts of it that I mean to be funny."
Her success with what one critic called "issues-related" material might be flattering, Livesey says, but it's not really what it feels to her like she's doing. "For me, it just feels like watching certain things surface in the culture."
What surfaced to inspire The Missing World, Livesey says, was our current preoccupation with memory: memory loss, recovered memory syndrome, millennial nostalgia, research into Alzheimer's disease, Tourette's syndrome, and even publishing's late memoir craze. The book's acknowledgments cite by name eight books on the subjects of memory, amnesia, and the human brain.
"But the first spark of the noveland this is embarrassing to admit," she admits, lowering her voice to a conspiratorial level, "it must have been in a waiting roomcame from an article in People magazine."
The article was about a man whose fiancée was injured in a car wreck and had lost much of her memory of recent events. He decided that, rather than just go ahead with their wedding plans, he should instead court and woo her all over again. (Now you know why this was in People.)
Not long after Livesey read that, a similar thing happened to distant acquaintances of hers. The wife lost her memory and the husband became the custodian of the couple's past, which, Livesey says, "had been a very stormy one."
The main plot of The Missing World is about an insurance adjuster named Jonathan (a deftly drawn monster of the mundane sort that probably lives or works alongside you) who takes advantage of his journalist ex-girlfriend Hazel's accident and consequent memory loss to try to insinuate himself back into her life and undo what he (disingenuously, it turns out) believes to be the biggest mistake of his life, which is turning down the marriage proposal she extended on a February 29th four years earlier.
The novel's other main charactersan expatriate African-American roofer named Freddie, a grimly out-of-work actress named Charlotte, a drab and ruthlessly responsible nurse (also Charlotte's sister) named Bernadette, and Hazel's best friend Maudall act as foils to one another, revolving around the novel's central questions of amnesia and memory. But Livesey is so subtle, so sly, and such a good storyteller, that this only seems obvious at the end of the book.
"This was all also a covert way of writing about being an expatriate," Livesey says, "which, after all, is another sort of being cut off from memories of one's past."
"One of the peculiar things about America is that so many people are expatriates in their own country. In Britain, something like three quarters of the population still lives within 20 minutes of their parents. I think in this particular way I may have written a very American book, one that happens to be set in North London."
It's a telling example of Livesey's subtlety that Freddie, the novel's one expat character, is in some ways her total opposite (male, black, an American in Great Britain, a physical laborer) and yet in others is perhaps the most autobiographical character in the book: Someone geographically and perhaps dispositionally like herself, a recognizable human being who finds himself in an extreme situation and, like all the other principal characters in The Missing World, convinces you that what in lesser hands might be a plot conceit is, from Livesey, the newswhat would really happen.
Mark Winegardner, a professor in the creative writing program at Florida State University, is the author of four books, including, most recently, the novel The Veracruz Blues.